The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a request to temporarily block a school board in the Washington, D.C., suburbs from using its new admissions policy to select students for a STEM magnet school widely regarded as one of the best in the country. The school board says the policy is aimed at increasing socioeconomic diversity. Challengers describe it as unconstitutional racial balancing that hurts Asian American students.
During the first year that the admissions plan was in use, offers to Asian American applicants fell dramatically, prompting a group of parents and alumni to challenge the plan as unconstitutional. Concluding that the school board had intended to discriminate against Asian American students, a federal district court barred the school board from continuing to use the policy, but a federal appeals court put that order on hold.
Monday’s one-sentence order from the Supreme Court means that the school district can retain the policy for now while the case continues in the lower court. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch indicated that they would have granted the challengers’ request to reinstate the district court’s ruling blocking the policy. Neither the court nor the dissenters explained their reasoning.
The school at the center of the case is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, in Fairfax County, Virginia – approximately 10 miles from Washington, D.C. In 2021, the school was ranked as the top school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report; nearly one-third of the graduating class of 2022 was named a National Merit semifinalist.
Until October 2020, Thomas Jefferson used an admissions process that included grades, standardized tests, teacher recommendations, and essays. But in the fall of 2020, the school board approved a new, “holistic” policy that guaranteed seats for the top students at each public middle school in the area feeding to Thomas Jefferson. Other applicants, including home-schooled students and those coming from private schools, competed for the remaining 100 seats in the incoming class. The regulation formalizing the plan specified that applicants would be identified only by a number; admissions officers would not know their names, races, ethnicities, or sex.
In the first class admitted using the new policy, for the class of 2025, the offers made to Asian American students fell by 19 percentage points, from 73% to 54% of all offers. Offers made to other racial groups, including white students, increased.
The Coalition for TJ, a group of parents and alumni, went to federal court in March 2021, claiming that the new admissions plan violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause. They argued that even if the new plan does not expressly take race into account, the plan was nonetheless “intended to reduce the percentage of Asian-American students who enroll in TJ, with the ultimate goal of racially balancing the school according to the racial demographics of Fairfax County.”
Holding that the school board had intended to discriminate against Asian American students when it revamped the school’s admissions process, the district court permanently blocked the school board from using the new plan. The school board then asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to put the district court’s ruling on hold while it appealed, and a divided panel of the 4th Circuit granted that request.
The Coalition for TJ came to the Supreme Court on April 8, asking the justices to reinstate the district court’s order blocking the school board from using the new plan. Otherwise, the group said, with the board scheduled to release admissions decisions on April 30, hundreds of Asian American students would be required to compete for seats at the school under an unconstitutional admissions policy. And because the school board has been aware since August 2021 that it might have to create a new admissions plan if the coalition eventually won, the group added, the board can’t now turn around and argue that it’s too late to create a new admissions plan.
Calling the district court’s order “unprecedented,” the school board – represented by former U.S. solicitor general Don Verrilli – urged the justices to keep that order on hold while its appeal continues in the 4th Circuit. There is no evidence, Verrilli wrote, that the school board intended to discriminate against Asian Americans; rather, the admissions policy, which was intended to improve socioeconomic diversity, “is administered in a race-blind manner,” with the consideration of race expressly prohibited. There is similarly no support, Verrilli argued, for the district court’s conclusion that TJ’s admissions policy disproportionately affected Asian American applicants. Even if fewer Asian American students received offers of admission than in past years, Asian American students receive offers at a “considerably higher” rate than they are represented in the overall group of applicants. And reinstating the district court’s order and requiring the board to overhaul the admissions policy for TJ at this point in the admissions cycle would be “convulsive,” Verrilli cautioned.
In its order late Monday afternoon, the court rejected the group’s request to reinstate the district court’s ruling. The case now goes back to the 4th Circuit, which is scheduled to hear oral argument in September, but it could eventually make a return visit to the Supreme Court.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.